Barry Fantoni: 'Harry knows what I know'

The all-round Sixties cool guy talks to Paul Blezard about the birth of his fictional private investigator, Harry Lipkin

There are many who claim to have been at the forefront of the Sixties explosion of cool, whether in music, art or satire, but few can back it up. Barry Fantoni is today known as the creator of Harry Lipkin, the world's oldest private investigator, but his place in the pantheon was assured early on when the Daily Mirror wrote of him in 1967: “Barry doesn't so much know what is in – he decides it.”

The lad from South London, whose father was a professional painter, attended Archbishop Temple School in Lambeth, "run by sadists and miserable Christians". He established himself as an artist at the age of 14 with the help of Lyle Watson, a red-bearded, socialist teacher who "rolled his own sweaters and knitted his own fags". Watson took Fantoni under his wing, helping him gain a Wedgwood Scholarship to the Camberwell School of Art and Crafts.

Expulsion soon followed, either for painting the faculty naked in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec but with erections ("How was I to know that the school inspectors were coming to the exhibition?") or, according to the school, "for your drunken behaviour, lack of respect for property, theft of student union funds, wrecking the home of a teacher in a state of drunken madness ...." Fantoni's defence, that he was merely holding a radio that a drunken squaddie, who'd crashed the party, had buried in the garden, held no sway. "I was guilty of all but one of those. I didn't wreck the teacher's home. I'd rescued the radio and was holding it, standing by a hole in the garden, next to a spade, covered in earth. What were they going to think? It really wasn't my fault."

He spent a sojourn in France, where work as a clarinettist, saxophonist, trumpeter and drummer kept the money coming in ("I wasn't any good. I just had the kit"), as did importing Olympia Press editions of banned works such as Naked Lunch into the UK. It was also the beginning of what would become lifelong friendships with Michael Horowitz, Ray Davies and Chris Gosden. Fantoni's love of jazz bloomed. He knew Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the "Jazz Baroness" and patron of Thelonious Monk in whose New York hotel suite Charlie Parker had died in 1955. He played with Ray Davies, "the greatest songwriter of the modern generation. A true poet." And he remembers the call from Ray telling him of the birth of the Kinks. He also taught at the Croydon College of Art alongside Bridget Riley and Howard Hodgkin.

On cartooning, Fantoni says: "It was a natural progression from art; the need to put words into pictures", while his feel for satire came from a will to "wound those who were attacking with fists; the miserably corrupt establishment". Drawing for Private Eye led to friendships with Richard Ingram and Peter Cook: "Oh the long phone calls through the night with Peter, both of us in the pit of despair, doing funny voices for each other until the sun came up and hope glimmered. We loved each other in the way that men who are suffering the same way love each other. So much of our livelihoods at the Eye depended on his genius, his style was just so unique."

There has always been a question over Fantoni's leaving Private Eye in 2010, the usual bowing out involving a pine box and a memorial service. Fantoni thinks long and hard before answering. "It was just time to leave. I'd done it. The establishment isn't even worth puncturing any more."

His TV break came after he was asked to design a Pop Art backdrop for Ready, Steady, Go. "When the BBC decided to do a magazine show they wanted to interview the man who designed Ready, Steady, Go. There was me, with loads of hair, being interviewed by a Brylcreemed wearer of ties and, with some gentle steering by Ned Sherrin, they said: 'Here's the future!'" The result was a job presenting A Whole Scene Going On, named after the Bob Dylan track, which went out live, had 16 million viewers and made Fantoni "TV personality of the year", ahead of Cliff Richard, Tom Jones and Mick Jagger. "It was a success because all I did was call my mates and get them on. It let me show the people that had cared for me and seen my promise – my mum, the art teacher and a few others – that I'd done all right."

Now living in a splendidly grand Calais town house with his long-term partner Katie ("Where in London can I buy a place like this for £180,000?"), Fantoni is as passionate and energetic when talking about his fictional detective as he is about his new art movement, Dépêchism, which has haste as its underlying philosophy. The only member of the movement, at present, he is hopeful that it will take off while not really caring whether it does.

On his fictional detective hero, Harry Lipkin, he is clear. "Harry isn't me, but he's seen what I've seen, he knows what I know." His detective is an unusual invention in an age of youthful semi-superhero detectives with highly developed forensic skills and every technological aid at their disposal. At 87, going on 88, the former cop turned gumshoe eschews convenience for the old-fashioned character-analysis method, what today might be considered profiling. A 40-year-old Chevrolet Impala worthy of Columbo moves him from scene to scene; sitting down becomes a priority during questioning; and lemon tea and good kosher food punctuate the day's work. But Harry gets the job done – as does Fantoni, whose great Jewish humour and astutely detailed observation create a tale that rips along at a pace which Lipkin's hips can only remember with fondness.

As Fantoni says, "When I invite my friends to an exhibition, they ask: 'What's the lighting like and will there be a lavatory?' Harry's would ask: 'Are there any stairs and is there a lift?'"

Harry Lipkin PI: The World's Oldest Detective, By Barry Fantoni

Polygon, £12.99

 

"Harry Lipkin, Private Investigator. Standard rates. My card says 1909, Samuel Gompers Avenue, Warmheart, Florida. There's also a zip code I can never remember. Since no one writes anymore it doesn't bother me. My licence I keep in the desk drawer, along with my .38, a box of slugs, my clothes brush and a spare set of dentures. I might not be the best but I am certainly the oldest."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future